Diacriticless Vietnamese on a sign in San Francisco

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Charles Belov sent in this photograph of a sign posted on the Pho 2000 restaurant on Larkin Street in San Francisco:

This is the wording on the sign:

Can nguoi phu bep va chay ban xin L/L sau 3:00 pm

Google Translate gives the translation:

Help the vegetarian and vegetarian L / L after 3:00 pm

Eric Henry gives a complete explication:

L/L stands for "liên lạc," to communicate with, make contact with. It's the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese verb liánluò. People use "liánluò" all the time in Taiwan; in the mainland "liánxì" is used instead.

The whole sentence with diacritics is: "Cần người phụ bếp và chạy bàn, xin liên lạc sau 3:00 [ba giờ] p.m."

It means "[We] need a person to help in the kitchen and wait on tables; please communicate [with us] after 3:00 p.m.

Word by word, the meanings are as follows: "cần" ~ need; "người" ~ person; "phụ" ~ assist; "bếp" ~ kitchen; "và" ~ and; "chạy" ~ run; "bàn" table(s); "chạy bàn" ~ wait on tables; "xin" ~ please; "liên lạc" ~ get in touch; "sau" ~ after; "ba" ~ three; giờ" ~ hour.

Google translate thought that the sentence was about vegetarian food, since "chay" with no diacritics means "vegetarian."

Lingering questions:

1. How common is Vietnamese writing without diacritics?

2. Would it be easier to read if the syllables were joined together into words?  In this particular sentence, though, except perhaps for "chạy bàn" ("wait on tables") and "liên lạc" ("get in touch"), it seems as though the individual morphemes pretty much stand on their own.

3. How widespread is the use of abbreviations like "L / L" in Vietnamese (or, for that matter, in other languages written in or transcribed with Roman letters)?

[Thanks to Steve O'Harrow and Nguyen Ngoc Hung]



47 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

    "How common is Vietnamese writing without diacritics ?" — in my experience, very (common/widespread). My wife (Vietnamese born, Chinese/Vietnamese ethnicity) almost never uses diacritics in e-mails, although of course she would add them when handwriting. Will ask about (2) and (3), although I anticipate an informed answer only to (2).

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    Update: "chạy bàn" is easily understood and would not benefit from being run together; "L/L" would be easily understood in this context, but she could not say how commonly it is presented in that form. She read the diacriticless form without hesitation.

  3. cM said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 3:13 pm

    Some French abbreviations come to mind:

    Very common on road signs:
    – "s/" -> "sur", as in e.g. "Someplace-sur-Mer"
    – "/s" or "s/s" -> "sous", as in e.g. "Elsewhere-sous-Bois"
    I find those particularly clever, with the "s" sur or sous the "/"

    Also very common in general (many, many "règlement du parc" signs):
    – "SVP" -> "S'il vous plaît": Please.

    And lots of texting jargon/abbreviations, often playing with (near) homophones:
    – "A+", short for "à plus tard": See you later
    – "C" for "c'est"
    – "A12C4": "à un de ces quatre": See you around
    – "we" for "week-end" (yes, that's a French word, except in Québec…)

  4. David Morris said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

    (Disclaimer: I know nothing about Vietnamese spelling.) Seeing that this notice is typewritten and printed, it may be a matter of what diacritics are available and how easily. I can relatively easily (but slower than my usual typing speed) add the more common diacritics used in English when typing on my full-sized keyboard, but would have no idea how to on my mobile phone keypad. The full Vietnamese spelling in Eric's explanation has some diacritics I've never seen before.

    What diacritics are available and how easily on Vietnamese keyboards and mobile phones? But that may not be relevant seeing that this sign is in San Francisco.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    Vietnamese used to link syllables into words using hyphens (e.g., liên-lạc). This practice has since been abandoned.

    I suspect the use of 聯絡 liánluò on Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese 連絡 renraku with the same meaning. It's true that Mainland China uses 联系 liánxì but 联络 liánluò is not uncommon, possibly due to Taiwanese influence. 联络 liánluò sounds more 'upmarket'>.

    联系 liánxì used to be used with 跟 gēn 'with' (跟我连我 gēn wǒ liánxì 'contact with me'); now 联系我 liánxì wǒ 'contact me' is common. I have a sneaking suspicion that English might have been a catalyst for this change.

  6. James said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 7:58 pm

    "liên lạc," actually derives from the Japanese 連絡 renraku, composed of two Han characters. Modern Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese have many expressions coined from Han, similar to the way Italian, French, English, etc. coin words from Latin.

  7. Chas Belov said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 9:25 pm

    Thank you! Interesting.

  8. Binh N said,

    September 30, 2018 @ 10:20 pm

    1. It is very common to see Vietnamese writing without diacritics on the internet since it's faster to type without them. On phones, the best keyboard in my experience is the Google keyboard. Here you use long-press to see a full list of choices for a letter with diacritics ( long-press 'a' : a, á, à, ả ,ằ, ậ and so on). Thus, it takes time to type with diacritics. In handwriting, this is not the case. People always write with diacritics.

    2. Would it be easier to read if the syllables were joined together into words? I am not sure the extend to which linking the compounds can help. I cannot think of actual examples on
    top of my head but I have encountered both situations, failure to parse and failure to guess actual diacritics. So perhaps if we can identify which problem is the more common one, we can think of a better solution. In this particular example, it's really easy to guess because there are only a few choices to pick out from the context given.

    3. How widespread is the use of abbreviations like "L / L" in Vietnamese (or, for that matter, in other languages written in or transcribed with Roman letters)? I have not encountered the use of L/L. I'm a native speaker of Vietnamese from Saigon and I often hear people say "liên hệ" in this case. I have seen a few LH without '/'. I have seen a lot more of ĐT (short for điện thoại 'telephone'). Many people also just write the phone numbers and assume others know what it means.

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 2:05 am

    "How common is Vietnamese writing without diacritics?"

    That's the wrong question and kind of assumes that Vietnamese writers think in terms of letters and diacritics and that quoc ngu is something like pinyin.

    IME (admittedly limited) what you think of as diacritics are perceived as integral parts of the writing system by Vietnamese who are meticulous about writing everything by hand.
    Also the writing system is not a 'transcription' of any particular dialect but a compromise between dialects developed over generations of use. As a result, of this, the spelling is not an exact match with anyone's pronunciation and everyone has to learn some spellings just by memory.
    And AFAICT spelling education always includes the vowel diacritics and tone marks.

    I'd say a better way to think of it is that when they can Vietnamese writers prefer to use their traditional orthography in its complete form. But in some contexts where technology is not up to the job they make do.

    An analogy might be having to write English where some keys aren't available, you want to write
    We need a person to help in the kitchen and wait on tables; please contact us after 3:00 p.m.
    but since the keyboard has no capital letters, punctuation, i or o, you write:
    we need a persn t help n the ktchen and wat n tables please cntact us after 3 pm

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 4:27 am

    Just to add to Cliff A's comments above — diacritics in Vietnamese are as much an integral part of the written word as tones are an integral part of the spoken word in Chinese, but they come in two flavours : the diacritic that modifies the sound of a vowel, and the diacritic that marks the tone of the entire word. The former are added as the letter is written, the latter is added after the word is complete. And if all you have is an ASCII keyboard then you either do as my wife does (ignore both completely, in the confident knowledge that anyone to whom she writes in Vietnamese will have no more difficulty understanding diacriticless Vietnamese than she does), or use one of the ASCII-based systems such as VIQR.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 5:18 am

    I find it interesting that the use of / in abbreviations is common in English and French, but wholly absent from German.

    Superscript is used a lot on French road signs. In Aix-en-Provence there's one pointing to a bibliothèque; it says Biblio followed by superscript que on top of a dot.

    Handwritten "out of order" sign (hors service): H . S (one dot, not two).

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 5:21 am

    Addendum : some diacritics do not modify the sound of a vowel but rather the sound of a consonant, e.g. the bar through đ/Đ which indicates that its sound is close to English "d" rather than English "y" or "z".

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 6:47 am

    "That's the wrong question".

    No, it's the right question, because it generated a productive, instructive discussion.

  14. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    Is "diacriticless" a common term of art, or was it coined for this post?

  15. Bathrobe said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 8:23 am

    I think it should have been "Vietnamese diacriticnessless in San Francisco"

  16. Chris Button said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:00 am

    Also the writing system is not a 'transcription' of any particular dialect but a compromise between dialects developed over generations of use.

    Furthermore, with the gentle passing of time, the writing system will become increasingly more divorced from the continuously evolving spoken word. While I'm not advocating a return to chữ Nôm (in some kind of standardized form), it is nonetheless interesting to note that as a writing system it would not be similarly afflicted to anywhere near the same degree.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:31 am

    @Bathrobe

    Why?

  18. Bathrobe said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:35 am

    It was meant only as a further elaboration of "diacriticless", which Ralph Hickok questioned.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:54 am

    "Is 'diacriticless' a common term of art, or was it coined for this post ? " — I appear to be the first person to use the term in this thread, and my spelling checker was singularly unimpressed, but I nonetheless used it since no better word came to mind …

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:56 am

    Oops — apart from the esteemed author, of course. I failed to register the first use of the term in the A-head.

  21. cliff arroyo said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    "Would it be easier to read if the syllables were joined together into words? "

    The trend over the last twenty years or more (at least) has been for syllables to be written separately, so that even single morpheme loans like French auto (ôtô) is now usually written ô tô.

    I remember that I could often easily understand whole sentences but I wouldn't have had any idea of how to break it up into separate 'words' (I'd have to dig though old materials to find good examples) I've spoken to advanced learners of Thai and Khmer who report similar experiences (in both those languages words are written with no spaces between them). This blurring of word boundaries might be a Southeast Asian thing. Similarly a very advanced student of Mandarin (who was also learning Thai) said that it was far easier to determine word boundaries in Mandarin than Thai.

    In short, I think writing some syllables together would create more problems than it would solve…

    "the writing system will become increasingly more divorced from the continuously evolving spoken word"

    True enough, but what I meant was more that the orthography (roughly) maximizes both the initials and finals while many/most local varieties level a number of distinctions in one or the other.
    So that it might (even more roughly) be described as Southern initials (distinguishing x and s, ch and tr, d and r etc) and Northern Finals (distinguishing the nga and hoi tones, distinguishing final -an and -ang etc).

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

    "I think writing some syllables together would create more problems than it would solve…"

    What problems would it create?

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

    "What problems would [running some syllables] together create ?" — well, mental mis-parsing/mis-pronunciation perhaps. I for one invariably mentally parse/pronounce "coworker" as "cow-orker"; it is not impossible, I think, for something similar to happen in Vietnamese. A Vietnamese word can end with an "n", and another word can start with "ng"; if (for example) a Vietnamese word ending "n" were to be run together with a following word commencing "g", it might not be clear whether it should be parsed as "xxxn gyyy" or "xxx ngyyy".

  24. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 4:12 pm

    Sounds like you're just making a bunch of wild guesses for which you have no evidence.

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    Fact 1 : A Vietnamese word can end with an "n"
    Fact 2 : A Vietnamese word can commence with a "g"
    Fact 3 : A Vietnamese word can commence with an "ng".

    Therefore, it is possible that if a Vietnamese word ending with an "n" were run together with a Vietnamese word commencing with a "g", it might not be possible to tell with which word the "n" should be associated.

    I cannot see which part of the above might reasonably be identified as a wild guess as opposed to an informed hypothesis.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 7:33 pm

    I'd love to hear you pronounce "coworker" as "cow-orker". I've never heard anyone do it. Never once in my life has it passed through my mind.

    It would be nice if you back up your "informed hypothesis" with examples and data.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 10:39 pm

    Re: cow-orker, I for years thought "chiefly seeds" in "The parakeet diet is chiefly seeds" were a variety of seeds pronounced "chee-fly" and that "infrared light" was light that had been subject to whatever action is implied by the verb "to infrare."

  28. Bathrobe said,

    October 1, 2018 @ 11:37 pm

    Arguments based on phonotactics (or "graphotactics" if you will) sound like a rationalisation. It would, however, be interesting to know the historical background behind thee practice of writing syllables (or morphemes) separately, which presumably dates back to de Rhodes. Hyphens joining morphemes were common in dictionaries printed in the old South Vietnam. I assume that inconvenience in writing them was one factor behind dropping them.

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 4:46 am

    VHM ("I'd love to hear you pronounce "coworker" as "cow-orker". I've never heard anyone do it. Never once in my life has it passed through my mind").

    In British English it would be co-worker ('though we prefer the term 'colleague'). When I first saw the American spelling 'coworker' my mind immediately said "cow-orker" and that has remained with me to this day. I'll make a recording and post a link if you really want to hear me pronounce it.

    "It would be nice if you back up your 'informed hypothesis' with examples and data".

    Just as soon as my wife (native Vietnamese speaker) is back from London, I will endeavour to supply same.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 7:11 am

    @Bathrobe

    The practice of joining the syllables of Mandarin words with hyphens was part and parcel of Wade-Giles Romanization. My first Sinological publications used Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GR, i.e., National Romanization — tonal spelling), so I got used to thinking of polysyllabic words as having joined syllables spelled together as in English, and it made a lot of sense to me. Later, editors of books and journals insisted that I switch to Wade-Giles, and I did so — at their insistence — thus I continued to join the syllables of words, but with hyphens, which I thought looked ungainly, but made linguistic sense. Still later, as circumstances required that I shift to Hanyu Pinyin, I again continued to join the syllables of words, but now without hyphens. During this period, I completed the editing of the massive Columbia Anthology of Traditional Chinese Literature and equally massive Columbia History of Chinese Literature, both over 1,300 pages in length, and I got the bright idea to use Wade-Giles (which had a century-long heritage of Sinological scholarship and was still widely used), but without all the hyphens, so I just dropped them. I thought it looked nicer without all those hyphens sprinkled all over the pages, more like natural language. Unfortunately, the readers for the press said that this was non-standard, and forced me to put them all back! Restoring all those thousands upon thousands of hyphens was really painful!

    Strange to say, a few of my friends (only two or three) who are excellent scholars bow to convention and use Hanyu Pinyin, but quixotically insert hyphens between the syllables of words and names! I think it looks clunky and believe that the hyphens are unnecessary, but they say it helps foreign readers pronounce the Romanization more correctly because it helps them identify the syllable boundaries.

    Chacun à son goût" / "chacun a son goût < (à) chacun son goût.

  31. Neil Kubler said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 7:42 am

    Have you noticed how, in recent years, in both mainland China and Taiwan the first letter of each Romanized syllable in a word is often capitalized, so as to clearly indicate syllable borders? For example, HeXie for 'harmony'. This is, of course, not standard practice and the linguist in me says this makes no sense at all (since there could never be any ambiguity if you write hexie). But it could be that native Chinese, so aware of character boundaries and less used to reading long series of Roman letters, have a strong need or desire for clarity as to syllable boundaries.

  32. Vítor De Araújo said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 8:37 am

    > "I think writing some syllables together would create more problems than it would solve…"
    > What problems would it create?

    If word boundaries are unclear in Vietnamese, grouping syllables would rely on convention and would be one more thing one would have to memorize and could get wrong. By writing every syllable separately you don't have to enter into arguments about which groups of morphemes are 'words' and which aren't.

  33. Duy N. said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 9:13 am

    Question 2 reminded me of a "Vietnamese spelling reform" effort from some years ago (http://vny2k.com/vny2k/CaitoCachVietTiengViet-Khongzau.htm). For my own experience as a native speaker, most of the diacritics-less Vietnamese text was through text messages and social media posts. Therefore, there wasn't much of the problem of misunderstanding due to ambiguous spelling. The link above also provide a version of what Vietnamese would look like written without diacritics and with syllables joined together. Reading the text, I admit there are some difficulty in the beginning however the differences in reading speed and comprehension wasn't very drastic from the normal Vietnamese writing. I was expecting that writing Vietnamese this way would be harder to read because of ambiguous spelling but from this experience, I think that this is less of a problem than I originally thought.

    While one would be able to construct words that would be ambiguous, for example

    thuy -> thú y (veterinary) vs. thúy (proper name)

    However, context would distinguish large number of these. In addition, there seem to be a genre of joke that play on the ambiguity of diacritics-less Vietnamese (https://vnexpress.net/loi-chet-nguoi-cua-viec-viet-khong-dau/topic-9493.html)

  34. Chris Button said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    Would that be something like /ˈkʰəʊ.ɜːk.ə/ ?

  35. cliff arroyo said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 9:50 am

    "By writing every syllable separately you don't have to enter into arguments about which groups of morphemes are 'words' and which aren't."

    That's very close to what I meant, the better I got at reading Vietnamese (I was never very good but I could make sense of genre literature) the less grouping syllables and morphemes into words I did, trying to parse sentences was actually more counterproductive than helpful… Parsing larger units like clauses or sub-clauses was more helpful. I don't think it's a coincidence that Vietnamese, Khmer and Thai don't use word breaks.

    Also, there's the aesthetic question, a few years ago I saw a site by someone who wanted to write syllables together and it was very… ungainly looking. There is a fair number of potential word-break issues since Vietnamese syllables begin and end in many more consonants than do syllables in Mandarin. These are solvable with dashes, but even then it was not very nice looking (ymmv)

  36. ~flow said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 11:08 am

    Apparently nobody so far has realized that what is written in the photo is L\L with a backslash, not L/L with a forward slash. Would that rather be a typo on part of the writer of the notice we're discussing here, or is the backslash rather common in Vietnamese?

  37. Not a naive speaker said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 12:02 pm

    In my opinion, one of the causes of writing of "diacriticless" Vietnamese is the use of the wrong keyboard.

    When I write a German text I need a physical German keyboard, not a virtual one; there I have easy access to all the German specialties ÄÖÜäöüß. In a pinch I use the substitution AeOeUaeoeuess, which is ungainly but readable.

    Of course a reader can infer whats meant by the writer if you are fluent in the language.

    I found a layout a of Vietnamese keyboard at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/globalization/keyboards/kbdvntc.html
    Its the first layout I've seen where you have to press AltGr to key in a number. Maybe that's why it is seldom used.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    Chris B ("Would that be something like /ˈkʰəʊ.ɜːk.ə/ ?") — /ˈkaʊ ˌɔːkə/. In other words, <Br.E> "Cow hawker" with full h-dropping in "hawker".

  39. ktschwarz said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 12:29 pm

    "Cow orker" was a common joke in certain internet circles. There are writing-advice sites out there that suggest hyphenating co-worker specifically for this reason, and Lynne Murphy's Separated by a Common Language once covered hyphenation and got some British responders agreeing that unhyphenated "coworker" looks like "cow orker" to them. Not unheard of at all.

  40. cliff arroyo said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    "In my opinion, one of the causes of writing of "diacriticless" Vietnamese is the use of the wrong keyboard. "

    I used to use the telex system, which required a keyboard program but then that worked in all programs (and online)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telex_(input_method)

    It took a little getting used to but in under and hour or so I could type reasonably fast. One good thing is that the transformation was automatic, you type aw but see ă (for example)

  41. Victor Mair said,

    October 2, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    "Not unheard of at all."

    In Britain, where they are used to seeing "co-worker".

  42. Keith said,

    October 3, 2018 @ 2:34 am

    I'd love to hear you pronounce "coworker" as "cow-orker". I've never heard anyone do it. Never once in my life has it passed through my mind.

    I'm another who pronounces "cow orker", but somewhat facetiously. Especially over here in France, where there are now "espaces de coworking" in most big towns and cities.

    I wonder how many people go orking cows in those places…

  43. Victor Mair said,

    October 3, 2018 @ 12:40 pm

    "I'm another who pronounces "cow orker", but somewhat facetiously."

    I.e., that's not the normal way you pronounce "coworker".

    Anyway, what might a "cow orker" be? I know what a "cow" is, but I have no idea what an "orker" is.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    October 3, 2018 @ 2:56 pm

    VHM ("but I have no idea what an 'orker' is") — it could be a hawker, as pronounced by a Cockney (or for that matter, by anyone who habitually drops his/her leading-'h's). See (for example) this link which reads (in part) "This should be done with the hindsight that not every cow 'hawker' is genuine. The fact that the transaction is all about willing-buyer and willing-seller calls for more diligence".

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    October 3, 2018 @ 3:09 pm

    Or for that matter it could simply be an uneducated attempt at 'cow orca', which is well attested.

  46. Garrett Wollman said,

    October 6, 2018 @ 10:35 pm

    Re: "but I have no idea what an 'orker' is" — it's a funny nonce word, along the lines of other jokey hacker-isms. Sometimes "cow-orker" is subject to periphrasis: in the relevant circles, "orker of cows" would equally need no exaplanation. Compare "furrfu", "luser", "boxen". The place where one has cow-orkers can be obliquely referred to as "$ORK"; the newsgroup where one once discussed such things can be even more obliquely referred to as "the Monastery".

  47. Victor Mair said,

    October 6, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

    As you make clear, "orker" is a joke.

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